Don’t be so quick to condemn partying Eagles, and smiling Bombers show up critics but must still improve

AFL, featured

Some things change, and others stay the same. In the AFL this week, we saw a new-look Essendon suddenly filled with life, Port Adelaide’s surge back into contention continue, and even – gasp – some fresh-faced-youngsters at Geelong!

As for the constancy, sweet constancy: Melbourne remain the team to beat by some distance, Fremantle suffocated yet another team, Hawthorn let another big lead slip, and Carlton’s midfield ripped Adelaide to shreds.

From the wonderful to the weird – and I think Charlie Cameron’s free kick against on Saturday night was about as weird as it gets – let’s unpack the week that was!

1. Bombers show up 2022’s worst take so far…

As far as the on-field action goes, Nick Riewoldt is almost peerless in the media for his analysis. It’s rare for him to miss the mark as badly as he did during the week, with his comments on Essendon players smiling during training.

“I’ve been a part of groups where things haven’t been going well. You think, ‘let’s just go out there and have fun, and remember that it’s just a game,” Riewoldt said on Fox Footy’s AFL 360 Extra on Thursday night.

“In my opinion, that’s actually the worst thing you can do, because we know the game is so hard to play. You’ve actually got to have honest conversations about the standards that you accept.”

After the Bombers’ stirring Saturday night win over Hawthorn, kicking eight goals to one in the final term to storm home, captain Dyson Heppell said what many fans were undoubtedly thinking: that critics of their jovial training session could ‘jam it’.

It’s important to note, though, that the narrative would be quite different had the Bombers gone down as expected to the Hawks. Riewoldt, in the eyes of many, would surely have been vindicated, and Heppell wouldn’t have had the opportunity to fire back in quite so emphatic a way. That doesn’t sit well with me.

Surely we have passed the point by now where players can’t, God forbid, actually enjoy their football? I would have thought, if anything, a serious, smile-free approach to training would just make Windy Hill a depressing place to be around, and do more harm than good.

Indeed, it was the spirit of that training session that drove the Bombers to victory, with the key theme of both being freedom. Attacking, free-flowing football, with a licence to kick and take risks through the corridor, took three quarters to fully succeed… but when it did, the Hawks had no answer.

The Bombers were given next to no chance against their old rivals once five players were late scratchings due to the virus that ripped through the club during the week. Against that backdrop, a carefree approach was clearly just what the doctor ordered.

It was an important reminder, to us as fans as well as the players, that footy can, and should, be fun.

2. … but can’t get ahead of themselves now

I wrote last week that Essendon, despite their poor form, shouldn’t succumb to the panic, ‘sack ’em all’ style reaction called for to some extent by many fans – and several prominent names in the media.

The same is true this week: just because the Bombers pulled off a famous win, it doesn’t mean things are all sunshine and rainbows again. The truth is that they have been down this road before.

This approach has, more or less, been the Dons’ style for more than a decade, from Matthew Knights, to James Hird, to Mark Thompson, to John Worsfold. All had the Bombers playing exciting, watchable footy, with floods of goals a regular occurrence.

And for more than a decade, the results have been similar: the Bombers have lived by the sword, died by the sword, crept into the finals in seventh or eighth… and lost an elimination final. One apiece under Knights, Hird and Thompson, and twice under Worsfold. Four of those five losses were emphatic.

The Bombers have the attacking tools to beat just about anyone on their day, but without a better defensive structure, and more protection behind the ball for when they do take risks, they will leak goals against most sides too. Had the Hawks kicked more accurately in the first three quarters, would the Dons have been close enough at the end to power home as they did?

The old adage in footy that you’re never as bad or as good as you think suits the Bombers perfectly. A win here should be enough to get the critics off their back for at least a week – but Ben Rutten and his team still have plenty of work to do to get this team to break its infamous 18-year finals victory drought.

3. Don’t be so quick to condemn partying Eagles

With the Eagles’ player availability already stretched to breaking point, the news that several players went out clubbing last week was never going to go down well, both within the club and without.

Coach Adam Simpson publicly said he was ‘furious and disappointed’ with the players, who included defender Josh Rotham. Rotham’s subsequent inclusion for their loss to Brisbane, instead of allowing a debut for another top-up player, was then soundly criticised.

Yes, the Eagles players should probably have opted for a quieter night with the club in such a perilous position. But it’s not like they did anything illegal, or something that other clubs aren’t doing as well.

The COVID situation in Perth is far more severe than anywhere else in the country – who knows how much longer that will be the case, but for now it has left the Eagles in particular devastated. Ultimately, though, unless the club and the AFL are prepared to move into an interstate hub, they’re going to have to ride the good with the bad.

Really, it’s the Eagles’ injury list, not COVID, that forced them to turn to top-ups again. Fremantle were able to deal with having six players out under health and safety protocols – just as many if not more than the Eagles – because their depth remains, largely, intact.

Kane Cornes defended his stance during the week that the Eagles’ standards have ‘slipped’, citing the nightclub adventure as proof. Maybe he’s right. But going out on a Saturday night isn’t generally a problem (provided you don’t punch someone or urinate on a police station) when your team is winning.

If you criticise the Eagles players, then you also must have a problem with the Richmond players seen out at the same venue on the same night. None of those players, as far as has been made aware, caught the virus and were forced to miss a week, though, so the outrage over their conduct was a heavy minority compared to what came West Coast’s way.

You’d also have to have a problem with Jack Ginnivan going out for a drink after his ANZAC Day heroics, reporting on which was slammed all week by most of us. Or is it suddenly only acceptable to have a good time and get on the beers if you’ve kicked five goals?

We saw this week that a happy, relaxed attitude worked wonders for the Bombers, despite the criticism. More to the point, staying in and watching Neflix isn’t going to make Rotham start clunking contested marks like Jeremy McGovern, or make Jackson Nelson a good kick of the football.

It’s fully understandable for the Eagles to be frustrated with their players, given the current situation. But if they can forgive Rotham enough to still pick him for a game, then the rest of us can probably cut the players a bit of slack.

Charlie Cameron of the Lions and Josh Rotham of the Eagles challenge for the ball. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Charlie Cameron of the Lions and Josh Rotham of the Eagles challenge for the ball. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

4. Darcy’s disaster doesn’t suddenly make long contract bad, Kane

It was a dirty day for Darcy Moore at the MCG on Saturday. Giving Tom Lynch far too much leeway was never going to end well unless the Richmond midfield couldn’t give enough supply. They did, and he feasted with five first-half goals.

Kane Cornes analysed Moore’s defensive lapses beautifully on the Sunday Footy Show: less impressive was his take during the game hinting that the Pie’s recent lengthy contract extension – he recently signed a six-year extension – is what’s behind the poor display.

It’s no secret Cornes is against lengthy deals, with the Pie’s monster one with Brodie Grundy often criticised by him over the years. But one bad performance doesn’t suddenly collapse the whole contract.

Moore, to his credit, had a more than passable second half, with his intercept marking – his trademark as an AFL player – on display. Indeed, it’s more a problem for Collingwood, rather than Moore himself, that he was needed to play on Lynch in the first place.

Moore is a lot like Jake Lever – both tall but lightweight, beautiful readers of the play and blessed with safe hands. Lever has Steven May to take the monsters, leaving him free to zone off the third tall – it’s imperative Collingwood find someone for that task to ensure they’re getting full bang for their buck with Moore.

And on the subject of long-term deals, has anyone questioned Christian Petracca’s form over the last 12 months since he signed a SEVEN-year deal in May 2021?

5. Despite Dees defeat, the Saints are still a flag contender

We’ve known for a while now that any team seeking to win the premiership in 2022 (and probably 2023 and 2024 as well) will need to do it over Melbourne’s cold, dead body.

The latest team to come up against the Demons and leave with tails between their legs was St Kilda, whose 38-point loss to the reigning premiers on Sunday afternoon somehow managed to feel both richly deserved by Melbourne and rather unflattering for the Saints.

However, while the margin looks reasonably hefty, it shouldn’t dispel the fact that the Saints, for much of the match and particularly in the second half, took it right up to the Dees. With a mix of daring ball movement, fast play through the corridor and ferocious pressure, the Saints were still right in the game at 23 points down midway through the final term.

Key to it all was Bradley Hill, moved from half-forward to the backline with a license to run, carry and bite off difficult kicks through the middle. Having struggled in that role for the best part of two years at the club, he has seldom looked more impactful in red, white and black than in that third term. His incisive ball movement helped open up the corridor that the Dees ruthlessly shut off in the first half, which in turn allowed the likes of Max King and Tim Membrey to come into the game in attack.

Changing the plan is a must to challenge the Demons – as Hawthorn proved last week with its quick play-on approach and tag on Ed Langdon, who was everywhere against the Saints – and after a first half where their normal method was dismantled by the Dees, Brett Ratten deserves plenty of credit for trying a new tack.

The result? The Dees’ defence – in patches – looked spooked, giving away frees and contested marks for King to kick two of the three goals for the quarter. Mind you, it was still just about impenetrable whenever the Saints really looked like getting a run on.

While the style was a world apart, the match felt a lot like Richmond’s clash with Adelaide in the early rounds of 2017: a team high on confidence after a great start to the year coming up against the premiership favourites, and being humbled.

By the time September rolled around, though, the Tigers were able to shut down the Crows en route to the first of three flags. There’s absolutely no reason why the Saints, with a bit of improvement, can’t do the same.

6. AFL’s Saturday timeslots need fixing fast

If fans on TV are the AFL’s prime target audience these days – and all the recent evidence points in that direction – then a pair of fixturing decisions on Saturday afternoon were simply baffling.

In the afternoon, the Sydney-Gold Coast and Richmond-Collingwood games both started at 1:45 on the dot; while in the evening, it was Essendon-Hawthorn and Brisbane-West Coast with parallel first bounces.

Quite frankly, it’s baffling. What purpose does it serve anyone, from the AFL through to the broadcasters, to leave fans only able to watch one match at a time?

The NRL , admittedly with one fewer match, does this well – you’ll never see two matches overlap in that competition. Making it even harder to understand is that the AFL used to do this quite well – games on Saturday afternoon were scheduled for 1:45pm and 2:10pm start times, while in the evening it was 7:20 and 7:40.

At the very least, that means you can flick over at quarter and half time from one match to the other. Why the change?

Considering all the other things the AFL has to do – among them fix the frankly diabolical situation facing female umpires – it’s not even in their top ten list of things they need to do. But it’s such an easy fix and it benefits every single invested party; surely we can give this current set-up the flick.

Random thoughts

– Find someone who loves you the way Nathan O’Driscoll loves the wrong pocket for a left-footer.

– You can’t be named Rioli and not give opposition defenders nightmares. Welcome to the club, Maurice Junior.

– That stat the Freo were younger than North on Friday night is amazing for the Dockers… and a bad sign for the Roos.

– The pile-on on Rhyan Mansell was deserved… but wonder why it didn’t come for Trent Cotchin a few weeks ago?

– Has Nic Martin just had the best first eight games since Michael Barlow? Hard to believe nobody drafted him.

– Just gonna leave this here: there are many worse AFL commentators at the moment than Kelli Underwood.

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